This essay is one in a series of profiles showcasing artists who will be honored in the 2018 National Sawdust Gala, to be held on May 10 at the Alhambra Ballroom in New York City. For more information, see nationalsawdust.org/gala.
“Right now we need art that is resistant. We need art that is disruptive. And we need artists who are willing to be a part of what are some massive changes in terms of social justice and politics.”
Numerous artists active in the classical-music world have used their privileged platforms as a means by which to address the challenges faced by society at large. Some have taken the further step of embedding such impulses and concerns into the art that they create. But it is hard to think of another artist within this particular sphere of creative activity who has made social activism as fundamental a pillar of both their public persona and their artistic endeavors as Daniel Bernard Roumain, the disruptor’s disruptor.
“As an artist, I do think about my responsibility to morality – my responsibility not just to social engagement, but toward the greater good,” he says. “And I’m always fascinated by the boundless possibilities of what it means to be a composer.”
A Haitian-American violinist and composer who trained at Vanderbilt and the University of Michigan, Roumain first began to attract public attention as the so-called “hip-hop violinist,” a classical rebel bent on bringing vernacular beats into the concert-music world. Over time, the depth of his endeavor and the seriousness of his mission have come into sharper focus. On the purely artistic level, Roumain has created works for eminent institutions like Carnegie Hall, the Boston Pops, and the Library of Congress—in the process, revealing what once might have seemed like a bold novelty to be, instead, a profound and authentic voice.
Increasingly, Roumain has raised that voice to address complex issues of social injustice and racial and cultural identity. Last year, working with the storied choreographer Bill T. Jones and the librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Roumain created the chamber opera We Shall Not Be Moved for Opera Philadelphia and the Apollo Theater. Based on the infamous 1985 Philadelphia police bombing of a black separatist faction, the work was cited by The New York Times as one of the best classical music performances of 2017.
Similarly, earlier this year Roumain seized attention with a concert at the National Gallery, during which he presented an assemblage of anthems, protest songs, and original compositions, bound together by notions of identity, struggle, and harmonious collaboration. Ideas of activism, engagement, and public service are never far from Roumain’s mind—not surprising for someone who, by his own admission, starts each day by reading the President’s tweets.
Still, fundamental to his conception of activism, he asserts, is a state of childlike, naïve, joyous, wonder. “I think as artists, we have to be simultaneously many things,” Roumain says. “Yes, we have to be disrupters. But we also have to be harbingers of optimism and hope and freedom. I really believe that the universe always corrects itself. I have a saying… I’ve been saying this for a few years now: when our politicians have failed us, artists have always led the way.”